Choices and Consequences in Your Author Business

career indie author

career indie author introduction

One of the most valuable skills you’ll exercise in running your author business is making decisions. It’s also one of the most frightening. If you’re in charge, you have to decide everything. If you find it impossible to get your characters to do what you want them to, the idea of directing your life and career is scary.

Relax. Yes, it can be tough to do, and in the beginning you’ll make plenty of mistakes. But there are two things you can do to make it easier on yourself.

1. Make decisions quickly.

2. Make a lot of low-risk decisions.

Making decisions quickly keeps them from piling up and overwhelming you, and if you make a lot of decisions, each that might only ding you if it goes pear-shaped, chances are no one decision will sink your company.

As you gain experience and knowledge, you’ll feel more confident that you’re making the right choices, and even where you’re not, you’ll hopefully know enough to get help.

That’s what the owner of a table-manufacturing business learned in “Boss Life.” Paul Downs had started as a one-man shop, and grew it into a moderate-sized business with about a dozen workers. Even though he had spent years at it, he realized he had never been trained in sales. He even had two people to take on the job; but none of them knew the fundamental rules of salesmanship.

He hired a consultant who reviewed his operation and recommended training classes for him and his two salesmen. By the end of the book, even though they hadn’t seen an uptick in sales, he was feeling more confident. His salesmen were keeping better track of clients and potential clients, and they were learning the tools that would help them succeed.

Like the owner in “Boss Life,” you’ll be making decisions and, where your knowledge is deficient, reaching out and getting help (like by buying this book, for example).

1. How to avoid bad advice

The explosion of self-publishing also created a wave of consultants promising (for a fee) to teach you how to make big bucks in the industry. You can buy books, attend seminars, listen to podcasts, enroll in video classes, and haunt the forums on Absolute Write and KBoards.

With so many voices, tools and techniques to choose from, it may be hard to tell where to invest your money and time. Here are a few suggestions:

a. Avoid people who promise too much. Anything worth doing takes time to learn, time to build, and time to sell. Get-rich-quick schemes work, but only for the guy selling it.

b. Avoid shortcuts. Want to publish 14 books quickly? I received a spam email from a “Carolyn Porter” that promised to do just that. They were, as expected, shoddy works with titles such as “Guide to Successful Online Freelancing”, “Fire Your Boss”, “Blogging Basics for Beginners”, and even “Explode Your Monthly Income Through Monthly PLR Sites!”

Private Label Rights is a curious concept in which you sell the right to remarket your work to someone who slaps their own logo and name on it. This is not an exclusive right; you sell it to as many suckers willing to send you money.

For example, through a search of PLR site, I found one that sold a number of products. For $12.25, you could buy a “Successful Affiliate Marketer” video course. I have no idea what it contained or whether it was any good, but I wouldn’t bet $12.25 that it is.

c. Look for results. One of the great things about indie authors is that they can talk about sales and money without wondering if their publisher is going to pull their leash. The contrast is blindingly sharp. I’ve talked to authors since the 1980s, and getting sales figures out of them would have required waterboarding.

Many indie authors are honest and supportive. They can be because there is much less pressure on them to put up a facade. You can listen to podcasts such as “The Author Biz” or visit “The Passive Voice” blog and listen to authors break down how many books they’ve sold, and how much money they’ve made.

There are still authors who prefer to keep themselves to themselves. There are even authors who use dubious methods. Thriller writer John Locke sold an ebook giving advice on how he sold a million copies. What he didn’t tell those buyers — but he did The New York Times — was that he hired people to post fake reviews on Amazon.

So if you’re listening to someone talk about the success they’ve had with a particular technique, see if they talk about how much they earned. And like any good reporter, wonder if there are ways to confirm that. Are there other authors doing the same thing? Are they reporting the same results. Trust, but verify and correlate.

2. Behavior

This is probably the most valuable advice in the book and possibly the most useless. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Be kind: to your fans, your allies, your enemies, and your friends. To readers and potential readers. To booksellers. To strangers. Even to reviewers. With everyone you will meet from here on out.

Show gratitude. To booksellers for carrying your books. To readers who tell you they liked your book. To your spouse for putting up with you and your dream. To your children, if you have any, and to your friends, if you have any, for doing the same.

Being snotty will not help you. It can even damage you. I’m friends with a bookseller. She doesn’t carry my books, but I love her anyway, because she is passionate about reading and great stories and great authors.

She was at a romance writers convention when she met Big Romance Writer. You would recognize her name, because her books are wildly popular and have made many best-seller lists. Bookseller loves her books, too, and she handsells about a hundred of them a year in her store.

Big Romance Writer did not make a great impression on bookseller. Even though she was in public at a convention, she kept herself surrounded by her posse. She made very little effort to talk to fans. You got the impression that she would rather be anywhere but there, and she passed the misery along to everyone, including Bookseller.

So when Bookseller returned home, she shelved BRW’s books with the other romance books. She stopped handselling her. She found other romance writers she liked, so she didn’t lose any money.

What goes around comes around.

So why do I think this is useless advice? Because people are set in their ways. We behave the way we do because it’s difficult to change. And do you think Gore Vidal would read this and decide to write an apology to William F. Buckley for calling him a “crypto-Nazi” on network TV? I don’t even want to imagine what he’d say to me.

So call me cynical, but I don’t think you’ll change, at least on my say-so. But I do believe it’s good advice, perhaps tempered by the addition that if you’re going to fight, you should choose the hill to die on. Many fights aren’t worth the energy, and while the cause may be forgotten, your reputation won’t be.

Put it this way: If you feel an urge to say a good word to anyone, say it. Don’t be afraid. Ignore your reluctance or what people might think of you. If you’re honest and direct and brief (not a gusher), it’ll be appreciated.

And if you think I’m wrong in my cynicism, demonstrate your new-found kindness and then tell me about it.

I’d be thrilled to be proved wrong.

Even Nice Guys Have It Tough

No matter how genial and charming someone can be, they have a breaking point. Even Jack Benny, the longtime comedian who make cheapness a virtue and was reckoned by everyone to be a wonderful man.

But even Jack had his limits. Here’s how Dick Cavett tells the story in his new book “Talk Show”:

author business

Jack Benny

When Jack Benny first came on a show of mine, I suddenly blurted, “Isn’t it a drag, Jack? Constant recognition?” To my surprise, he blurted back, “I like being famous!” A rare admission at any time.

He elaborated: “I go to a night club, I get a good table. I go to the theater, I get the best seats. At the country club, the steam room attendant gives me the best towel.” Then came, delightfully, “And ya know, kid, what the best part is? People are generally glad to see me.”

I declined to remind the great man of something I had witnessed years before when I was writing for Jack Paar. Mr. Benny, as I then called him, was on that night’s Paar show, and when taping was over I made my habitual point of getting into the elevator with one of my heroes. So did a bunch of audience members. The son of Waukegan looked smart in his belted, classic Burberry.

For what follows, younger readers will need help with the trademark Jack Benny references, so dear to the memory of those of a certain age.

First, someone asked, “Do you still drive the Maxwell?” Then came, “Are you really cheap?” This of course triggered, “Do you really keep your money in that underground vault?” Before we reached the main floor there was time for several more, including the inevitable, “Do you really not pay Rochester much?”

Realizing that he must have become numb to being asked these same questions for decades, you had to admire the gracious way he nodded and smiled. He was a very nice man.

When the doors opened, the civilians all rushed out to astonish their friends with reports of whom they had met and actually spoken with.

Jack put his arm around my shoulder and in that soft voice, said, “Ya know, kid, sometimes ya jes’ wanna tell ’em to go fuck themselves.”

3. Legal Landmines

Being a public figure can be risky. It’s possible to say or write or do something that puts you in legal jeopardy, or someone may say or write something that you might find actionable in court.

This section should not be construed as legal advice. It’s intention is to make you aware of possible situations that could result in receiving a threat of a lawsuit.


Suppose you’re writing a book about a New Jersey boy wanting to escape his dying steel mill town with his best girl. At the head of the story, you add an epigram quoting two lines from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” about how the streets are congested with damaged noble men on their final risky journey. Thirteen words. That shouldn’t cause a problem, right?


But it’s fair use, isn’t it?

Not in this instance. Fair use is an exemption in U.S. copyright law that allows you to use a copyrighted work for commentary, parody, news reporting, research, and education about copyrighted works.

You can’t quote a lyric because you think it would be neat. If you want to decorate your story this way, be prepared to pay.

No author can escape

But I see authors use quotes or epigrams from books in the same way, but you don’t see their copyright notices. What gives?

Maybe authors are less likely to mind, even though their works are covered in the same way. Perhaps because they they’re nice people and don’t mind. After all, few authors are as popular as Bruce Springsteen, and probably none of them hold a place in the hearts of so many fans.

Also, it’s not just 13 words, it’s 13 famous words. You’re not just borrowing a poetic turn of phrase, you’re taking the feelings behind the song, the public’s affection for it, and some of Springsteen’s glamour for your own.

And what if you’re writing about a New Jersey boy who’s on the run because he set fire to a bus full of nuns, orphans, and puppies and ran them off the end of the Asbury Park pier? Do you think the Boss would want his song associated with a creep like that?

One more note about fair use: The law does not specify how much of a copyrighted work can be quoted.

Anytime someone tells you that you can use up to 30 seconds of film from a movie or you can borrow up to 100 words and it’s fair use, don’t believe them.

For example, Time magazine was sued for quoting 300 words from a biography of President Gerald Ford. Only 300 words, out of a book of more than 100,000 words.

They lost the suit, because they quoted probably the most important 300 words about Gerald Ford’s life: Why he thought he should pardon President Richard Nixon.

You can’t count on quoting a small amount of a copyrighted work being considered legal.

There are other ways to run afoul of copyright law.

1. You design the cover of your new novel using a photograph found on the Internet. You publish your book and months later, Getty Images sends you a cease-and-desist email, along with a bill for a thousand bucks. Turns out your photograph was taken by Annie Leibovitz.

Lesson: Not everything posted online is in the public domain. If you’re unsure about the source of an image, use Google’s Image Search. Drop the file into its search box, and it will try to identify it. Or, buy the rights to an image from a reputable agency, such as Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Corbis, iStock Photo, Trevillion Images, or (of course) Getty.

(Ironically, even doing the right thing can still land you in legal hot water. A public health campaign involving AIDS showed a photo of a woman, who later sued. It came out that the photographer did not have her sign a model release form.)

Or, you can try finding public domain photos at Wikipedia, Library of Congress, or the British Museum.

2. While reading the Brain Picking’s website, you find a post about the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent to his wife. You choke up over a particularly touching paragraph and have your heroine read it in your latest romance.

Months later, you get a letter from the estate demanding that you remove it or pay up.

Lesson: Letters, like any other prose, are automatically copyrighted by the writer. If, somehow, you obtained legally the original of Nabokov’s letter, you could sell it, but you couldn’t publish the contents.

So why could Brain Pickings excerpt the book? The “fair use” provision allowed them to discuss Nabokov, his relationship with his wife, and the contents of the letters. Since Brain Pickings is a very popular site, the post also acted as an effective advertisement for the book.

3. In your latest thriller, you write, “Colt Steel xeroxed the hula hoop behind the dumpster next to the putt-putt. Careful of his bandaids, he kept his mace and taser handy to defend his lava lamp should the realtor-ninjas attack on their jet skis.

This would earn you nine warning letters from the owners of Band-aid, Xerox, Hula hoop, Dumpster, Putt-Putt, Mace, Taser, Lava lamp, Realtor, and Jet Ski. As trademark owners, companies are obligated to defend their misuse in the marketplace. If they are not consistent, they risk losing the trademark. Just ask the (former) owners of aspirin, dry ice, flip phone, laundromat, trampoline, and videotape.

Lesson: Be aware of brand names, and be prepared to use alternatives.

Libel and Slander

Suppose you’re giving a talk at a bookstore and someone asked your opinion of a famous author. You heard a story about him and a bookstore owner getting into a drunken fight, so you tell it.

Then a person who was filming your speech with her smartphone put it up on YouTube and titled it “[YOU] say [FAMOUS AUTHOR] knocked out [BOOKSTORE OWNER].”

The video goes viral. You get media calls about the story. The author is asked about it, and he is upset. The bookstore owner, however, is livid. Not only did it not happen, but he’s a Mormon and a teetotaler, and your big mouth got him in trouble with the church and his customers.

Congratulations, you’ve slandered a private citizen.

This extreme example illustrates a point: Be careful what you say, especially when you’re being recorded.

Although libel and slander are used interchangeably, they are different in a court of law. Simply put, you libel in print, but you slander in speech. (To simplify matters, we’ll use libel for the rest of this section.)

author business rex morgan

She may not keep a neat house, but she knows the difference between libel and slander

When you libel someone, you’re expressing inaccurate information that can damage a person’s reputation or finances.

In the U.S., it’s harder to prove libel against a public person as opposed to a private person. A public person is someone who thrusts him or herself into the public sphere. It can range from a popular figure such as Madonna, Sly Stallone to someone who organizes a protest or appears on a reality TV show.

Simply lying about a private person could be considered libelous, whereas to reach that standard about a public person, you would have to exhibit a blatant disregard for the facts.

Say you’re writing an article about the president for a national magazine, and you receive anonymous information that he’s carrying on a torrid affair with a member of Congress. You’re told who is involved and when and where they met. Any attempts to confirm it fails. You can’t find a witness, hotel records don’t show their name, and both parties were seen in public far away from each other. You run the story anyway.

If this case reached the courtroom, you and the magazine would lose the case. Not only did you not find any evidence that the affair took place, but you ignored evidence that a reasonable person would say disproved it.

A similar case happened recently. Rolling Stone magazine published a story about a woman who claimed she was raped during a fraternity’s party. In the resulting outcry, the fraternity was suspended, members were verbally attacked, and the university’s reputation took a severe hit. Only it turns out that the woman lied. On the night she claimed she was attacked, the fraternity was not holding an event. The reporter did not check that out, nor did she confirm other aspects of the woman’s story. The fraternity has filed a $25 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone.

So be careful what you write.